“From time immemorial, Saffron-currant-cakes have been the boast of our Cornish house-wives” said the renowned Truro-born clergyman, poet and historian Richard Polwhele in his 1836 book ‘Reminiscences, in Prose and Verse (Etc.)’.
And in her 1890 book, Cornish Feasts and Folk-lore, Penzance poet and folklorist Margaret Ann Courtney explains that ‘in some parts of the county it is customary for each household to make a batch of currant cakes on Christmas Eve. These cakes are made in the ordinary manner, coloured with saffron, as is the custom in these parts. On this occasion the peculiarity of the cakes is, that a small portion of the dough in the centre of each top is pulled up and made into a form which resembles a very small cake on the top of the large one, and this centre piece is usually called “the Christmas”. Each person in a house has his or her especial cake, and every person ought to taste a small piece of ever other person’s cake. Similar cakes are also bestowed on the hangers-on of the establishment, such as laundresses, sempstresses, charwomen, &c.; and even some people who are in the receipt of weekly charity call as a matter of course, for the Christmas cakes. The cakes must not be cut until Christmas-day, it being probably “unlucky to eat them sooner.”’.
There is so much that has been written about Cornwall’s famous saffron cakes, yet before spotting this 1936 recipe written exactly a century after Mr Polwhele wrote of their heritage, we had yet to sample one ourselves.
Saffron loaves and buns have been made in Cornwall since it was introduced to the county in the 14th century when it was traded for copper and tin. The colour of sunshine, this loaf is heavy with fruit and as soon as it comes out of the oven you can see that it’s something special.
We enjoyed a slice each fresh from the oven, one buttered and the other with a good spread of clotted cream and the 1930s rhubarb and ginger jam that we made not long ago. It was heavenly.
Original Recipes: 'Loaf Bread' and 'Cornish Saffron Cake' (Book 5, 1936)
Serves: 8 to 10
For the Dough:
14 oz / 400g Strong White Bread Flour
¼ oz / 7g Fresh Yeast
213 ml Tepid Water
¼ tsp. Sugar
¼ tsp. Salt
For the rest:
¼ lb / 113g Caster Sugar
¼ lb / 113g Mixed Peel
¼ lb / 113g Butter
¼ lb / 113g Currants
¼ tsp Allspice
A pinch of Saffron
Prepare the saffron
1. Put the saffron in a glass bowl and cover with 2 tbsp. boiling water. Stand in a warm place until the water becomes yellow (at least a few hours). This can be left to infuse overnight..
Make 1 lb of bread dough
2. We used a recipe from the same book for 'loaf bread'. Sift the flour, allspice and salt into a warm bowl. Make a well in the centre.
Note: We wouldn't advise doing this in hot weather. Lard gets mushy quite quickly when it's warm.
3. Cream the yeast with the sugar until it turns liquid, then stir into the tepid water. Pour this mixture into the well in the flour. Work enough flour into the well from the outside to form a batter, then sprinkle more flour on top, cover with a cloth and set in a warm place for 20 minutes when it should be covered with bubbles and be quite spongey.
4. Mix in the remainder of the flour and knead well. The mixture should be stiff enough to leave the bowl and the hands clean. Weigh this. We will need 1lb to make our saffron cake, or just slightly more.
Forming the Saffron Cake
5. Knead the saffron water and strands into the dough until the colour is even. Then knead in the currants, mixed peel and caster sugar until fully combined. This is easiest done a bit at a time.
6. Slowly melt the butter over a very low heat, being careful not to let the butter oil. Then add this into the dough a little at a time, gently kneading in until fully incorporated. You'll end up with a very sticky dough.
7. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured board and knead for 15 minutes. Make sure that you have plenty of extra flour ready in a shaker as this dough drinks up a lot of flour!
8. Turn the dough out into a well-buttered loaf tin and bake at 180 C (160 C Fan) / 356 F / Gas Mark 4 for 1 hour until golden and cooked through.
This may be eaten hot or cold. Traditionally, it would be thickly sliced and either buttered or coated with Cornish clotted cream and we tried both. When it came to the clotted cream, we couldn't help but add a dollop of the 1930s rhubarb and ginger jam that we'd made a couple of weeks beforehand. We felt that the flavours complemented each other beautifully 🧡.
Original Recipes for 'Loaf Bread' and 'Cornish Saffron Cake'
'BOOK 5': Cookery Illustrated and Household Management (1936)
By: Elizabeth Craig
Publisher: Odhams Press Limited (Long Acre, London, W.C.2, England, U.K.)